Contextualizing the Complex World of Modern Warfare

Fred Kaplan goes inside “Dark Territory”

Originally published in the San Diego Jewish Journal, November 2016 issue

By Natalie Jacobs

In 2016, it’s all cyber all the time. Our lives are connected to a small number of vast databases in ways we no longer bother to notice. With that, a lot of things are easier, like keeping tabs on funds in a savings account, the delivery of electricity, hitching a ride to the airport, monitoring and controlling hydroelectric dams. War and espionage are also easier in many ways, thanks to the growing interconnectivity of things and the very small number of computers that route troves of information to destinations around the world. Not that long ago, the word “cyber” didn’t even exist. If you’re curious about when that word was first used, and when it became attached to the word “war,” then Fred Kaplan’s “Dark Territory the Secret History of Cyber War” is worth a couple weeks of your life.

Where the film “Snowden” portrays the government, specifically the NSA, as an all-seeing, all-knowing, cocky frat boy, Fred Kaplan’s meticulously researched book “Dark Territory” chronicles decades of starts, stops and roadblocks on the government’s way to understanding and harnessing the power of cyber warfare. For much of the time that this book covers – from the mid-80s to April 2015, through four presidents and a handful of high-ranking military personnel – the government seems alternately concerned and distracted, bogged down and energized, intrigued and just plain uninterested in cyber anything.

It’s the difference between journalism and movie making. Oliver Stone seeks to entertain by dramatizing the real events leading up to and directly after the biggest document leak in the history of American national security. Conversely, Kaplan works to outline the bloated personalities and mundane bureaucratic forces that have shaped American military and spy policy in the last 30 years. Information tastes best when it is equal parts historical context and heart-pumping action and Kaplan mostly succeeds at finding that balance. Although the timing of “Snowden” and “Dark Territory” is purely coincidental – the movie is out now, while Kaplan is on book tour with a stop in San Diego – the two would do well to piggyback off each other.

From the beginning, “Dark Territory” is sprinkled with tantalizing tidbits about the inner workings of American government. Rather surprisingly, it starts with a movie, in a scene from Reagan’s presidency. One summer night at Camp David in 1983, the former actor sits down for an evening of R&R to watch “War Games.” By the end, he’s terrified. The next day, at a pre-scheduled meeting with a bunch of top government people, Reagan brings up the film and asks the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General John Vessey, if something like the hacking of U.S. defense command control centers could actually happen. A week later, Vessey returns to Reagan with a stark response.

“Mr. President, the problem is much worse than you think.”

It’s these kinds of details that make “Dark Territory” irresistible. Like in 1990 when the U.S. bombed Saddam Hussein’s fiber-optic cables forcing Iraqi commanders to communicate through a backup network built on microwave signals, which the NSA then easily tapped into through strategic satellite positioning during Operation Desert Storm. Or when a team of 25 top coders from the NSA were assigned a test hack of U.S. defense systems. They were given two weeks to successfully disrupt or dismantle communications across military networks. The team completed the mission and hacked the system in four days.

The conflicts associated with cyber warfare become more ethically vexing as time goes on, especially as it relates to private industry and individual citizens. Kaplan repeats the idea “Whatever we can do to them, they can do to us,” like a mantra throughout the book, along with questions about the changing definition of war. By way of contextualizing the new world order that the U.S. was simultaneously attempting to squelch and accelerate, Kaplan turns often to helpful comparison between the nuclear arms race and the growth in cyber warfare. With nuclear, there is an accepted level of transparency between countries, and as illustrated by the end of the Cold War, a mutually agreed-upon line that to-date, no one has been willing to cross. With cyber, though, the attacks are massively secret, and for now, there isn’t any established no-go territory.

Even without Hollywood, Edward Snowden irrevocably connected the United States to cyber espionage and no “secret history” of cyber war would be complete without some exploration of the leak, how it was felt inside the watchful eyes of the NSA and the fallout. And as it turns out, no true understanding of Snowden’s actions can come without the historical context that Kaplan provides. The problem is, history stops at the present and by the end of the book, Kaplan has driven readers up a winding mountain, kicked them out of the car and driven off.

Those interested in more of the story can see Fred Kaplan close out this year’s San Diego Jewish Book Fair on Sunday, Nov. 6. Kaplan will be interviewed by his wife, Brooke Gladstone, host of the NPR show “On the Media” at 7 p.m. at the JCC.